Almost every Saturday of this school year, Collegiate sophomores, juniors, and seniors have been waking up early in the morning to travel to an area of Richmond that many Collegiate students probably have never even driven through. When you get out of the West End and head down Forest Hill Avenue, you eventually reach Webber Avenue, where a whole different reality lies. Here, students with widely differing backgrounds have been forming relationships and friendships as if they had known each other their entire lives. Luckily, I have had the privilege of being one of these Collegiate students.
Oak Grove-Bellemeade is an elementary school that educates students of many different backgrounds and ethnicities. Three years ago, Upper School Spanish teacher Sra. Soria-Nieto was invited to volunteer at Oak Grove. Soria-Nieto’s AP Spanish students and Spanish IV students have been going to Oak Grove from 9:00-12:00 on most Saturday mornings to work with children from Central and South America who are English language learners. These kids are part of the ESL (English as a Second Language) program at Oak-Grove, which focuses on teaching kids English in an interesting and interactive way.
A usual Saturday at Oak Grove consists of the ten to fifteen Collegiate students arriving a little before nine to welcome the Oak Grove kids. Once everyone gets there, we gather around in a circle and do warm-up exercises. Then all the Collegiate students are assigned to a group of a few Oak-Grove students to practice reading and writing exercises. After a snack and playground break, the students get back in their groups and usually finish the day by doing some sort of craft.
One of the main reasons that the Saturday Academy at Oak Grove is such an amazing program is because of the individual attention that the students get. The ESL program helps the students learn English in the best way it can, but Oak Grove is only able to employ one ESL teacher for the more than 20 students who qualify in grades one through five. This one teacher has to teach students who are all at different learning levels, which inevitably leads to the students not being able to get as much specific attention in regards to their learning. With the Saturday Academy, there are often enough Collegiate students to be able to work individually with the kids, which allows them to learn more effectively, catering to their grade and learning level.
The strongest impact, however, has been the connections formed between the students from Oak Grove and the students and teachers from Collegiate. According to Soria-Nieto, “Every Saturday I get hugs and kisses that give me energy for the rest of the week. The hardest part is to know that I will not get to see them for a week.” While it may seem like a small amount of time that the two groups have spent together, it did not take long to feel like everyone was one big family. Ellie Fleming (‘16) experienced this first-hand, saying, “As soon as I arrived the first time I went to Oak Grove, three or four kids came running up to me and started playing tag with me and tickling me. They are the most friendly and fun kids you’ll ever meet, and I love spending time with them.”
The Academy started out as a requirement for the AP Spanish students, but students quickly fell in love with the program and returned week after week. It did not take long for the the two-session requirement per semester to be deemed unnecessary, because students were happily returning much more than this. For EJ Patterson (16), “I’ve gone a lot more times than the required amount because I’ve developed such great relationships with so many kids, so I feel as if it’s my duty to go because I know a lot of those kids want me to be there. As hard as it can be, sometimes getting up on Saturday morning, I’ve never regretted going to an Oak Grove session because it’s just that much fun.”
Oak Grove has involved Collegiate students in more hands-on service learning, which has directly impacted the lives of the Oak Grove students by improving their English, while building strong relationships in the process. When talking about how the program impacts the Collegiate students, Fleming writes, “Oak Grove is a great way to apply what we are learning and discussing in AP Spanish in a real-life setting. Being able to interact with people who speak Spanish as their primary language and whose families have been influenced by some of the cultures that we study is an amazing way to see how various cultures are important in our lives.” In addition, Soria-Nieto concludes it best by saying, “We are creating a beautiful relationship between the children of Oak Grove and our students. It benefits everyone. It is a time when we forget our daily stress and are able to focus on them.”